Lana Stone has never considered herself a stalker--until the night she impulsively follows a familiar face through the streets of New York's Upper West Side. Her target? The "anonymous" egg donor she'd selected through an agency, the one who's making motherhood possible for her. Hungry to learn more about her, Lana plans only to watch her from a distance. But when circumstances bring them face-to-face, an unexpected friendship is born.
Katya, a student at Columbia, is the yin to Lana's yang, an impulsive free spirit who lives life at the edge. And for pragmatic Lana, she's a breath of fresh air and a welcome distraction from her painful breakup with her baby's father. Then, just as suddenly as Katya entered Lana's life, she disappears--and Lana might have been the last person to see her before she went missing. Determined to find out what became of the woman to whom she owes so much, Lana digs into Katya's past, even as the police grow suspicious of her motives. But she's unprepared for the secrets she unearths, and their power to change everything she thought she knew about those she loves best...
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I watched her walk down the street. She had a fast, determined pace, knew where she was going. No hesitation, no window shopping as she passed boutiques and gourmet grocery stores. Not even cute dogs or babies distracted her. A woman on a mission.
A woman who didn’t bother glancing back. A woman easy to follow.
I kept my distance just in case.
The sidewalks were busy without being packed. Traffic moved slowly up and down Broadway. She went into the Starbucks at the corner, holding the door for two women who were coming out. I lingered by the AT&T shop next door. It would be a long wait. The line for espresso drinks was huge, I could see through the window. I knew she’d get a latte. She always got a tall latte. I liked that about her. None of that fancy Caramel-Double-Mocha-Frappuccino crap but not a plain Jane regular coffee either. My kind of woman.
Dark, fierce clouds were moving in from the west, pushing over the city’s rooftops and water towers. I could smell the rain in the air. A gust of wind swept up a plastic bag and it swirled past me, waist high. I turned to watch it slap the windshield of a yellow cab before falling to the ground. Pieces of paper flew out of the overflowing trash bin at the corner. A storm was coming.
She walked out with a tall Starbucks cup in her hand and a resolute expression on her face, ready to conquer the world.
I liked her. I liked her a lot.
I looked at the half-dozen women sitting around the table. I loved these women. They were my family, the only friends I had left. But tonight I couldn't stand being among them. I wanted to get the hell out of the fluorescent-lit room in the basement of the West Side YMCA I came to religiously every other Friday.
We were members of a club nobody wants to join-the Barren Women's Club. We weren't called that, of course. Officially, it was a support group for couples struggling with infertility. But mostly it was only the women who came.
Today, it was just a few of us. You had to be really desperate to show up on Good Friday.
It was a particularly hard night for me, and the rich chili smell wafting through the room, courtesy of the skinny woman on the other side of the table who was wolfing spoonfuls of it from a paper cup, didn't help. We all came after work (except for Robin, who showed up in Jimmy Choos on her way to one glamorous event or another). But if you had to bring food to this windowless, pain-soaked room, couldn't you at least pick something less odorous? I usually had a bottle of water or juice. On the rare occasions I needed a boost, I'd pick up a latte at the Starbucks across the street.
We went around the table, sharing our stories and catching up with each other's progress. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and settled my gaze on Angie, a petite woman with a mane of brown hair and a big laugh, who was sitting across from me. Her warm fuzzy personality endeared to her you instantaneously, making you feel at once cozy and invigorated, like a good cup of coffee. The two of us had been coming here the longest-nearly four years. Our odds had been much better back then. She was thirty-nine now and I had just turned thirty-eight. Angie was my hero. She was single, trying on her own with donor sperm. On her latest IVF round last month, she'd finally gotten pregnant and was about to graduate from Group.
I quickly went over my long history of failures for those who were joining us for the first time tonight and explained that my partner, Tyler, and I had finally moved on to a donor egg cycle. It was a huge emotional and financial plunge, but we'd exhausted all other options. The whole point of using a young woman's eggs was that they would be better than my own. But my doctor had called me in the afternoon with the bad news that only two had fertilized. That meant we would have no embryos left to freeze and use in the future should this cycle fail.
"My transfer is on Monday," I said. "And I'm terrified. This is my last chance."
"Don't say that." Robin smiled at me from across the table, fiddling with the big rock on her finger. "You can always try again."
Next to her, Angie mimed a gun to her head.
I considered ignoring Robin-I was sure she meant well-and, on any other occasion, I would have. But I was not myself tonight. "You know, Robin," I said, trying to keep my voice even, "some of us can barely afford it once."
She flushed and looked away and I sat back, grimly satisfied at having shut her up.
"Can you believe the bitch?" Angie said as soon as we walked out.
Bitter wind blew in our faces and we zipped up our jackets, dug our hands into the pockets. It was unusually cold. If it weren't for the daffodils, tulips, and azaleas blooming all over Manhattan, you'd think it was February, not April.
"To hell with Robin," I said as we headed to the subway. "All I can think of is my transfer on Monday."
Angie squeezed my shoulder. "I know, hon. Try not to worry too much."
That was why I loved Angie. She knew better than to say something stupid like, Don't worry! Because of course I would worry. I'd have to be made of stone not to worry after three miscarriages and eight IVFs.
Angie and I boarded the train at Lincoln Center and sat down across from a woman with a stroller. I waved to the toddler girl, who leaned over the bar to check us out. Her hair was braided and pulled up in a fluffy bun, fastened with a pink ribbon. "She's adorable," I said to her mother, before turning back to Angie.
"Why don't we go get a drink?" she said. "My doc told me a glass of wine doesn't hurt and can help you relax."
"I can't. Tyler's waiting for me. And I still have work to do."
The little girl was getting fussy, kicking her chunky legs. Her mother unbuckled her and sat her down on her lap. She had on a pink dress and matching shoes. I smiled, waved at her again. She stared at me with her big brown eyes before finally giving me a grin. My whole body seemed to relax, all the tension draining away.
"How's he dealing with the bad news?" Angie asked.
I frowned. "I haven't even told him yet."
Tyler hadn't been happy about spending the last of our savings on a donor egg cycle that cost more than half my annual salary. We did okay between the two of us-he as an associate philosophy professor at Columbia and I as an associate curator at the Met-or rather, we would have been doing okay if we weren't pouring it all into fertility treatments.
"He's been weird lately," I continued. "Going through the motions as if he doesn't care about the cycle. He's been irritable, too. We fight about the smallest, stupidest things."
"Men don't know how to deal with stress. Make him give you a massage tonight," Angie said with a wink. I shrugged, distracted by the little doll in a pink dress across from me. I put my hand in front of my face and mouthed, Peekaboo, as I pulled it away. She stared at me, then lifted her hand, imitating me. I turned to Angie. "Do you think her mother would let me hold her?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Don't you just want to hug her?"
"Yeah, but mothers usually don't hand their babies to strangers."
"It's not like I'd bolt with her at the next stop." I looked at the girl, then back at Angie. "On second thought . . ."
"You're a freak!"
"I just want to breathe in that sweet baby smell." Angie shook her head. "Who knows," I continued, "maybe it'll bring me good luck on Monday."
"Why not? Women's cycles sync when they live together. Maybe motherhood's contagious, too." I gave Angie a nudge with my elbow. "Why do you think I've been hanging out with you so much since you got pregnant?"
"Freak," she said again, and hugged me good-bye before getting off at 86th Street. We didn't wish each other a happy Easter. Family holidays were hard on us, especially those that revolved around children.
I got off three stops later, at 110th Street. I loved living in Morningside Heights, near the Columbia campus. I'd come for graduate school and never left. The area pulsated with life. Students, faculty, visiting scholars from all over the world. You could overhear passionate conversations about gender politics, the rise of populism, or poetry on the streets, in the cafs, even in the grocery stores. The neighborhood was at once steeped in the past and forward-looking into the future. It was like its own island within the island of Manhattan.
The buckets of tulips lined up outside the corner store on 111th Street caught my eye. A bit of color might brighten my mood. It was important to stay positive, my fertility acupuncturist insisted. It hadn't helped me before but it couldn't hurt, I thought, and grabbed a bouquet of the orange ones. A Reiki woman I'd seen years ago had told me it was the color of the reproductive chakra.
Inside, I hesitated in front of the ice cream freezer. I'd been avoiding dairy and gluten for the past two months, since some believed it affected fertility. But a pint of Ben & Jerry's Mint Chocolate Cookie couldn't possibly make a difference.
I'd just pulled a tub out when my mother called. The woman had a sixth sense. I shouldn't have picked up and I certainly shouldn't have told her that I was buying ice cream.
"Oh, honey," she said, "all these sweets are ruining your figure." My mother had been worrying about my figure since I was five.
"Mom, I have my transfer on Monday and I'm really not in the mood-"
"I keep telling you, Lana. You need to stop stressing out. You won't get pregnant until you relax."
Of course, it was all my fault that I couldn't have a child. I loved my mother but she had a gift for making me feel like shit even when she meant well. She'd never said outright what a huge disappointment I was, but she'd made me feel it in more ways than I wished to remember. And this wasn't like failing at ballet or the piano or not being good enough to get into Harvard. Even the stupidest, least deserving people could make a baby. Often without trying to. I shook my head, wished her good night, and put my phone back in my purse.
Upstairs, I stood in front of the door for a moment before pulling out my keys. Something didn't feel right. On Group nights, I usually returned home to Tyler blasting his favorite punk bands-the Clash or the Pogues or Gogol Bordello-while preparing dinner. He'd meet me at the door, hand me a glass of wine, and sit me down at the kitchen table with a bowl of olives and a plate of crackers while he finished making the meal. Tall, with long limbs, he clumsily navigated our tiny kitchen, the wooden spoons looking like toys in his enormous hands. Watching him hum to himself as he sliced and chopped and stirred was my favorite part of those evenings. But tonight the apartment was eerily quiet. I unlocked the door and pushed it open.
Before I even walked in I saw Tyler's extra-large roller duffle bag standing in the corner by the coat rack, stuffed to the gills. The last time I'd seen it was eight years ago when he'd moved in.
"I'm sorry but I can't take it anymore," Tyler said. I stood there, my hand clutching the tulips, the plastic bag with the ice cream cutting into the skin on my wrist. He was wearing the oxford shirt I'd given him for Christmas, the one I liked so much because it brought out the blue in his eyes. My gaze locked on an ink stain right above the pocket, where he usually kept a pen. The source of many ruined shirts.
"All that pain is killing us, Lana. We need to take a break."
"A break? But . . ." My throat was so dry, the words came out hoarse, rusty. "But our transfer is on Monday."
"I know." He looked down. "I'm sorry. I can't go through with it right now."
I stared at the ink mark on his shirt, my eyes cloudy with tears. My ears began buzzing.
"We need some distance," I heard him say as if from afar. "To figure things out."
My mind was racing. I thought of the texts he'd been getting lately at all hours of the day. Of how distracted, even cross he'd become over the past few months. "Is there another woman?"
"Christ, Lana! This is about you and me." He shook his head. "I'll move out for a month or two. Just to give us both some space."
Before I had a chance to respond, to tell him that I didn't need any goddamn space, he leaned over and hugged me, holding me tight the way he'd done after each miscarriage. At five seven, I was by no means petite but in his big arms, I felt like a dainty porcelain doll. If he squeezed any harder, I'd break.
Then, just as abruptly, he let go of me, took his duffle bag, and, without looking back, he left.
A cold breeze ruffled the curtains. The beeping of a truck backing up down the street, then quiet but for the distant noises of the city. Only when I heard the ice cream tub crash on the floor did I realize my hand had dropped the bag and flowers.
It was 9:00 a.m. on Monday and I was still in my pajamas. I should have gone to work but I'd already told my boss I was taking a sick day. Might as well stay home. I was an art curator. If I missed a day, the world wouldn't stop.
Slumped on the couch, I stared at the phone in my hand. Finally, I sighed and pressed the number on the screen. "Fertility clinic," a female voice answered.
My throat tightened. The words felt like lead on my tongue.
"Hello," the woman said, her voice rising. "Can you hear me?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
"Hello?" she said again, waited, then hung up.
I threw the phone on the floor. What would I have told her anyway? My partner left me? He decided he no longer wanted a baby?
I wondered if anyone had ever canceled their transfer before. After all the hormones, the ludicrous amount of money, the shrink evaluation, the daily doctor visits, the endless pages to initial, the papers to sign, had anyone ever really called to say, Never mind?
The phone buzzed on the floor. I brushed the tears away with the back of my hand and got up to get it.
A text from Angie: Good luck today! I'll be thinking of you. xo
"Is your husband at work, too?" the woman sitting next to me asked.
I looked up from the Vanity Fair I'd been leafing through. She had perfectly blow-dried hair, trendy highlights, and a flawless manicure that seemed out of place with the blue, giant-size hospital gown she was wearing. I scanned the clinic's pre-op waiting room. Furnished with pastel armchairs and sofas, it looked more like the reception area of a law firm than a hospital. About a dozen women were having their transfers today. All of them were sitting with their men except for the two of us.
I considered her question. A few days earlier I would have said, "My partner is at work," stressing partner just enough to give it an accusatory quality. For years, I'd passionately defended my right to have a family without the formality of a signature, without the sanction of the church and government. I would explain at length that marriage was an inherently patriarchal institution that subordinated women to men. That the term wife meant I was someone's property, whereas partner suggested equality. One thing I'd never considered was how easily a partnership could dissolve.